A first look at dialogue.

Dialogue is a funny thing. You don’t need it. Hell, you can write an entire story without dialogue and make it superb. However, the second you add dialogue, it’d better be good because it becomes the most important part of the scene.

I feel pretty confident as a writer, but dialogue always poses a great challenge when I write. It’s not because I’m necessarily lacking in that department, but because I respect how critical it is to write it well. Here’s the other thing: dialogue doesn’t always hold to hard and fast rules. You can perfect your use of puncuation or your ability to maintain perspective, but you can’t perfect putting words in the mouths of made-up people. It’s too fluid, dynamic and situational to ever say, “This is how I’m going to do it every time!”
So let’s hit a few bulletpoints regarding dialogue. These are not hard rules, but guidelines that are meant to help in your process.

Actions drive plot. Dialogue drives story. An alien spaceship landing in the character’s yard doesn’t tell you anything about the character, but it puts the plot in motion. Now, whether or not the character says “Oh, my god! A freakin’ spaceship!” or “Finally, my people have returned,” puts the character into motion. Dialogue advances the heart of your story, including things like conflict and character development that make it meaningful and real.

Never have anyone in a scene say something that doesn’t advance the story. Now, if someone in the scene isn’t saying something, get rid of them. They’re pointless.

Never write a line of dialogue that doesn’t cause conflict with another character. Otherwise, it does nothing but waste paper. Example:

“I need to get inside that ship,” John said.
Peter eyed the smoking hull of the saucer warily.
“Okay,” he said, looking back to his friend.
“Actually,” John said, “we should both go. It’ll be fun.”
“Yeah, that sounds good to me. It’ll be a riot,” Peter smiled.
“Cool, man, let’s go.”
The two friends walked hand-in-hand to the space ship, where they embarked on an incredibly boring adventure where everyone gets along.

So that dialogue had no point. If you really needed to create that scene in which Peter and John both want to go to the ship, it could be done in one sentence and with no dialogue. Much cleaner. Now, on the other hand….

“I need to get inside that ship,” John said.
Peter eyed the smoking hull of the saucer warily.
“The hell you do,” he said, looking back to his friend.
“You know,” John said, “this is exactly why you lost us that record deal. You’re scared to take action.”
“Screw you, John! You were going to sign our lives away without even reading the contract! Now look at you. Some hunk of metal falls out of the sky and you want to get inside it? This is Nashville all over again, man!”
“Not cool,” John said through clenched teeth, “we said we weren’t going to talk about Nashville. Not ever.”
Peter watched his friend turn and walk toward the saucer. John never listened. He never thought things through. With a resigned sigh, Peter followed behind him.
It was going to be just like Nashville. Except this time, Kowalski and his arm-cannon wouldn’t be around to save their hides.

See the difference? I can tell you from my end that the first passage was painful to write. People talked, but nothing happened. The second passage was fun to write because people were yelling at each other, and in doing so, they were adding to the story. Now you know that John takes stupid risks. Peter hates it, but sticks around anyway. You also know something went down in Nashville and that the character’s are probably in a band. Plus, some guy named Kowalski has an arm-cannon. Damn compelling stuff.

So, once you’ve figured out when to add dialogue, the next big challenge is to make it effective. Style and practice go a long way in determining how you’ll do this, but here’s some pointers:

  •     ALWAYS read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like something a person would actually say?
  •     I like to picture characters in my favorite movie or TV show reading my dialogue. I’ve watched all ten seasons of Friends about fifty times, so I can easily picture the cast saying whatever I want. Does it fit? Does it sound right? Are the reactions genuine?
  •     Be careful with dialect and accents. I try never to use them. I don’t want to read (or write) a story around a character that has to do this:

“Yaaaar! Me bastardin’ pirate hat be blowin’ in yon breeze, matey! Cast off and swing’er roun’ hard on da yardarm ‘fore yon sea beasty gobbles ‘er up! Ho ho!” said Captain Stereotype, a tear rolling from his one eye.

  •     Get rid of attributives. Overuse and over-creativity with these is a sign of amateurish work. It might seem like you’re being descriptive, but it’s hard to read and annoying. If you write the dialogue well, you don’t need to tell the reader that “he chided” or “he scolded” or “he shouted angrily” or “he cried out longingly.”   This is where skill and practice comes in. Eventually, you’ll be able to write an exchange of dialogue where you only have to use “he said” a few times and still keep it easy to follow. I break my own rule on this. Sometimes I’ll use “he growled” because I like the way it sounds. But I use it very sparingly. It’s also okay to use things like “he whispered,” if needed, but don’t repeat it throughout the scene.
  • Don’t get wrapped up too much in rules. Hone your ability to judge what works and what doesn’t. Just keep the dialogue realistic, relevant and flowing.

A final note that I will repeat several times throughout the blog:
Never underestimate your reader’s imagination! You don’t have to explain or describe everything. Give them hints, subtle clues, and let them enjoy painting the picture in their mind’s eye.

If they wanted it all spelled out for them, they’d be watching a movie.


Tags: , , , , ,

About jpaulroe

Freelance writer and content producer.

2 responses to “A first look at dialogue.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: